Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Blood and treasure: looking at Iraq war forecasts with hindsight

An interesting article about the monetary costs of the Iraq war prompted me to try and dig out forecasts of what the war would cost in lives and money. It wasn’t easy, at least on the casualty side.

Blood. Gulf War I killed 148 American soldiers. In March 2003, we were stronger and our enemy was weaker, but we faced a more difficult task of defeating Saddam on his own turf. My vague recollection is that “experts” gave a range of 500 to several thousand Americans dying in the proposed war. I’ve found nothing to directly back up my recollection (my Google search is here, feel free to look at it or revise it if you’re interested). This Chicago Tribune article says the Bush Administration refused to give estimates of its own, which meant public approval of the war had to rely on outside estimates. A West Point instructor guessed less than a thousand American dead, while a Brookings Institution expert guessed as much as 5,000 dead.

The current number of American dead (excluding civilian contractors) is 773, according to this excellent website, and trend figures on the site are not encouraging. There will be considerably more than a thousand dead when we exit (whenever that is), although I have trouble seeing 5,000 Americans dying there. Fewer than 200 Americans died in combat before liberating Baghdad, far beating expectations. No one that I’ve seen predicted the aftermath would be so deadly. The end result will probably be in the middle of expectations.

Treasure. The SF Chronicle had this informative article. Gulf War I cost $84 billion in current dollars, 90% of that paid by our allies, so less than $9 billion to the U.S. In late 2002, the Bush administration rebuked its own, since dismissed, economic adviser for estimating the cost of prospective war of being $100-200 billion, and instead suggested a total cost of $50-60 billion. The Chronicle has various figures for actual costs, one of which is $63 billion from March 2003 to January 2004. This figure excludes costs of preparing for the war. We know the Bush Administration asked for an additional $87 billion for Iraq last August and spent almost all of it (although some money went to Afghanistan), and now wants another $25 billion. This chart attached to the Chronicle article suggests $130 billion dollar costs for Iraq, excluding war preparations. War critic estimates I’ve seen usually guess at $200 billion spent so far, but with little to no documentation. The Chron estimates another $50 billion will be needed through the 2005 fiscal year, and nobody knows after that (to Bush, “nobody knows” equals “free”). I will bravely guess that Iraq will cost us an additional total of 50 to 200 billion dollars after fiscal year 2005, before it finally reaches a point where we spend relatively little money there on an annual basis. Adding $30 billion for war preparations prior to March 2003 (to make up a figure out of absolutely nothing), my grand total is $210 to $360 billion dollars, or three to seven times the Bush estimate, and twenty to forty times the cost of Gulf War I.


The "blood" analysis excludes Iraqis, American civilians, and third-party nationals. We can forget getting reliable data on Iraqi deaths, let alone a breakdown into combatant versus non-combatant deaths. We can bet it is far higher than American deaths. American civilian and other nationals deaths might be available to someone doing additional research.

Yep, this post is 20-20 hindsight talking. The point is to look at forecasts afterwards, and decide who you trust, and whether your own judgments at the time were right.

Judging in March 2003 whether invading Iraq was worth the blood and treasure involved the perception of the vast majority (including me) that Iraq had WMDs.

Sometime before the November election, the 1000th soldier will die in Iraq. I expect a lot of soul searching in the media. I also guess that both presidential campaigns already have their written statements prepared for that day.

I could swear the Bush Administration said last August that the $87 billion they asked for would be the grand total for both Iraq and Afghanistan, and they wouldn’t need any more afterwards. Haven’t been able to confirm that.

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